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Stardock says it’s the victim of DMCA abuse as Star Control: Origins returns to Steam, GOG

The battle between Stardock and the creators of the Star Control franchise enters its next phase

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Key art for Star Control: Origins Stardock Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Star Control: Origins is once again up for sale on both the Steam marketplace and The spacefaring role-playing game, which was released in September 2018, was temporarily removed from sale on both platforms following a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claim against its developer, Stardock Games. The claim was made by the Star Control series’ creators, Fred Ford and Paul Reiche. In a blog posted on Jan. 28, Stardock says that both Valve and GoG reviewed the claim and both elected to return the game to sale.

“Thanks to the timely review of the situation by our partners at GOG and Valve and taking the exceptional step in placing our game back for sale, despite ongoing litigation,” Stardock wrote, “we have been able to avoid having to lay off employees assigned to the project.”

The litigation in question refers to dueling lawsuits issued by both parties related to the ownership of elements of the Star Control franchise. The narrative begins in December 2017 when Stardock sued Ford and Reiche, alleging that the pair had no legal claim to the franchise that they themselves created. Then, in February 2018, Ford and Reiche made similar claims in a complaint against Stardock.

The situation escalated in December 2018 when a federal judge cleared the path for Ford and Reiche to issue a DMCA claim against Stardock. In a lengthy blog post, the two men said they were well within their right to issue the claim at that time.

“We don’t claim to have a copyright on all interstellar travel,” they said, “but we do have a copyright on the specific way we expressed interstellar travel in Star Control 2. We see many such examples in Star Control: Origins where its expression is substantially similar to and/or derivative of our copyright-protected work, without our permission.”

Stardock CEO Brad Wardell ridiculed the notion on social media and, it would seem, has prevailed on his retail partners to see things his way. Star Control: Origins is now back and available for purchase.

“We are hopeful that this malicious use of the DMCA process will make consumers aware of just how out-of-hand the state of the DMCA has become,” Stardock continued in its blog post. “Anyone with an interest in digital goods and services owes it to themselves to increase their awareness of how wide-spread DMCA abuse has gotten and spread the word on it.”

This is not the only story on alleged abuse of the DMCA system to make headlines in the world of video games. Most recently, Battlestate Games, makers of Escape From Tarkov, issued nearly 50 DMCA claims against a single YouTuber in an effort to suppress his videos. The Russian-owned company admitted to Polygon that it was wrong to use the DMCA in such a manner, but said it had no other choice.

Update (Jan. 30): Stephen C. Steinberg, a lawyer representing Fred Ford and Paul Reiche, strongly defended his clients’ use of the DMCA claims process. He also points out that the U.S. district court judge Saundra Brown Armstrong does as well.

Late in 2018, Stardock requested an injunction from the court that would have prevented Ford and Reiche from filing a DMCA claim. Judge Brown denied that request, calling Stardock’s objections “frivolous” and pointing out that its CEO, Brad Wardell, “lacks the expertise necessary to opine as to what constitutes ‘copyrightable artwork.’”

“Valve and GOG initially took the game down in response [to my client’s DMCA claims],” Steinberg told Polygon, “but then put it back up after Stardock confirmed it will indemnify Valve and GOG from any liability in the case.”

Letters sent by Stardock to Valve and GOG, one of which is signed by Wardell, indicate that the software developer and publisher has volunteered to secure the marketplaces against legal liability in this instance.

“We dispute Stardock’s claim in the litigation that Reiche and Ford’s DMCA notices were fraudulent and Mr. Wardell’s characterization of such notices as “DMCA abuse,” Steinberg continued, “which seem to ignore the Court’s order denying Stardock’s motion.”

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